How young people in Burundi are tackling HIV

On World Sexual Health Day (4 September), HIV youth advocates are highlighting the fact that the disease is the number one cause of adolescent deaths in Africa.

On World Sexual Health Day (4 September), HIV youth advocates are highlighting the fact that the disease is the number one cause of adolescent deaths in Africa.

And it is also the second leading cause of adolescents deaths globally, yet in every other age group, AIDS-related deaths have dropped. Link Up is a programme responding to these shocking statistics and working to improve the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of young people aged 10-24. The programme is led by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, along with a consortium of partners, and is taking place in Burundi, Ethiopia, Uganda, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Young people are at the centre of the project, and they are trained to be role models in their community. Because of their age, these people are more approachable in other young people’s eyes, meaning they can easily share crucial SRHR information. The peer role models include men who have sex with men, people living with HIV and sex workers.

The role played by young people

In Burundi, many peer-to-peer outreach, small group discussions and community dialogues take place throughout the capital Bujumbura. “I’m HIV positive, but living with this virus has been a burden for me, except the day when I met other young people who live positively with it. That has changed everything,” confides 15-year-old Alain.

Activities are created and led by young people and take place within communities and at youth centres. Under the programme young people have access to various services offered by their peers such as voluntary HIV testing, distribution of condoms and lubricants, access to contraception and advice relating to safe sex, as well as other sexual and reproductive health education materials.

“I came to know the Link Up project when I was playing a game in a youth centre. I saw someone ask for a condom and return with it, another one got an HIV test for free so I asked if I could have the same services and they said yes,” confides a young man, who did not want to be named.

Link Up project sees results

In 2013, according to UNAIDS more than 250,000 adolescents (15-19) were newly infected with HIV and 120,000 adolescents died from AIDS-related causes – more than 300 every day.

The Link Up project is now in its third year and data results from July this year show the huge impact it is having on young people’s lives. Nearly 1,000 young people have been trained as community role models who can promote sexual and reproductive health and rights issues. They have reached more than 23,000 young people affected by HIV with information and integrated HIV and SRH services.

“I think that now young people are mobilised on HIV and they are prepared to live positively if the screening result is positive,” says Nadia, a service provider.

Importantly, the project is reaching key population groups most affected by HIV, including around 3,000 young people living with HIV, 4,100 sex workers, 3,900 men who have sex with men, and 13,400 young people who are considered vulnerable due to some aspect of their lives.

The number of clinics now giving services to men who have sex with men has increased under the project. Before the project there were only two clinics providing services for men who have sex with men. But now more than five clinics that Link Up is partnering with are becoming more open and accessible for young key populations. By increasing services for young people, especially for those from groups who are at an even higher risk of HIV, Link Up is helping reduce the spread of HIV and unwanted pregnancies among young people in Burundi.

Cedric Nininahazwe, executive director of the Burundian National Network of young people living with HIV, who are one of the Link Up project partners, says: “Those young people touched by Link Up are no longer ignorant about the subjects surrounding HIV and sexual and reproductive health, and can contribute in their communities to reduce the impact of the virus. Many more young people are using condoms, as well as getting tested, and are not so afraid of the results.”

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